I don’t know much about birds either, Tom. They disturb my soul. Also, they’ve attacked me more than once here in Milledgeville. Dinosaurs on the wing. And so by extension, I also tend to find bird enthusiasts disturbing, such as my uncle, a musician, who told me he recently participated in the Tennessee State Bird Count, where naturalists deduce the number of species and quantity of birds in a given region by driving out to a swamp and listening to birdcalls all day. But that ornithology stuff gives me a primal shiver. A beak scratching the base of my skull. Birds are ancient; birds are death. So maybe it’s because at age thirty I’m still relatively young and uncomfortable with thoughts of death that I steer clear of birds. Because as you point out, Tom, it seems to me that your level of specialized knowledge of birds seems to correlate almost exclusively with aging. For instance, I used to love poring through the pictures in Audubon’s Field Guide to Birds, but I’d only read it with my grandmother.
So then Tom, while like you I know next to nothing about birds, I also think it’s imperative that we’re clear about this, that while we’re not birdnerds ourselves, we don’t mean to flaunt our youth by coyly proclaiming ignorance, which would be ridiculous, or to come off as in any way anti-birdnerd. Because I do wish I knew more about birds. Such knowledge seems to indicate your scale of perspective, a certain comfort with understanding your place in the world.
My aunt works at a greenhouse and nursery in McLean, Virginia, a mile or so inside the Beltway, and the owner, Stan Mehr, is now 96. His wife of many decades passed a few years ago. Stan grew up in Brooklyn, tending homing pigeons on the roof of his Coney Island apartment, and in World War II, he enlisted as a pigeoneer. Today, Stan maintains a coop of around a hundred pigeons behind the greenhouse, which backs up to a row of brick mansions, and every evening around five Stan opens up the coop and, using a long metal pole with a piece of tarp on the end, herds his pigeons into the sky and flies them around his fields.
And little as I know about birds, I do know there’s one bird that stitches all geographical regions of the country together—the pigeon. Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Milledgeville and Minneapolis. New Orleans and New York. They’re everywhere, and they’re beautiful in a grimy way, like they’ve bathed in oil, and with these attributes taken together—their vast numbers; their squalid luster—there could be no better emblem of the modern American city. But put a pigeon in the suburbs, and it becomes a curio, a rare bird.
And Stan Mehr, 96, stooped and white-haired and widowered, leads a cloud of them in a dance every evening, over his asters and zinnias, over the roofs of the mansions that long ago penned him in, while behind him the sun descends, and less than a mile away, the cars dribbling out of the city jam the DC Beltway in rush hour, idling, chugging oil, bumbling home. So where then does death take us—into the ground with the fossils, or up in the air?
Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.